February 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Say 'Om' February 1998 Current Issue
February 1998
Say 'Om'

Wellness programs put physical and spiritual well-being on the agenda


Fiscal fitness is usually the first goal any company aims to achieve. But for LJH Global Investors, ensuring its employees' physical and emotional well-being shared top billing with improving its financial health during the firm's strategic planning meeting.

"The president wanted the meeting to address the whole picture: planning the company's direction for the new year, as well as the staff's health and wellness and ability to work as a team," says Sherri Zelinski, the company's marketing assistant, who helped organize the meeting.

So last December, this usually buttoned-down crowd traded their Naples, Fla., office for a desert spa (Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Ariz.) and their business suits for sweat suits. For four days, the 12-person staff indulged in body wraps, fango masks and manicures; groaned and sweated together during aerobics classes and morning hikes; and learned to implement their own personal fitness and wellness goals at home, amidst the stresses of their day-to-day lives.

How did they feel after four days of this regimen? "Inspired," says Zelinski. "We not only mapped out where we wanted the company to go in the future, but where we wanted to go healthwise as well."

Employees were so inspired that upon their return home they joined local gyms and continued healthful eating habits. This newfound fitness awareness, Zelinski says, was the company's goal.

LJH is one of many firms now incorporating wellness into the meeting agenda, according to Stephanie Matolyak, director of new business development for Spa-Finders, a spa travel and meeting agency based in New York City. In fact, she says, meetings are among the fastest-growing segments of the spa business. While some companies buy into the spa meeting concept for the sake of individual fulfillment, others realize that some typical wellness activities foster team building to boot. The LJH staff, for example, started several mornings with aerobics and hikes in the desert surrounding the property.

Says Sherri Zelinski, "At first, a few people who were really out of shape were dreading doing activities in front of their colleagues." But after a day or two of everyone getting used to seeing each other in sweats and straight-from-the-shower wet hair, their self-consciousness was cast aside.

"By the end of the meeting, they were the ones who were most gung-ho about the group activities."

Translating spa speak Don't know the difference between a fango treatment and a mud bath? Actually, they're the same thing -- it just sounds more appealing with an Italian name (fango means mud). Fancy spa terminology can be just as intimidating to spa regulars as it is to uninitiated, first-time attendees. Following are definitions of the more common spa terms and treatments, adapted from a glossary of terms produced by New York City-based Spa-Finders, a spa travel and meeting agency.

ACUPRESSURE: Ancient Chinese massage technique used to restore the unrestricted flow of energy by stimulating specific pressure points on the body.

AROMATHERAPY: Treatments such as massage, facials, body wraps or hydro baths, with the application of fragrant essential oils. Different oils are used to induce various therapeutic benefits.

AYURVEDA (pronounced eye-or-VAY-da): Ancient system of traditional folk medicine from India, using a large variety of techniques incorporating nutrition, herbal medicine, aromatherapy, massage, meditation, etc., to restore the organism to perfect balance.

EXFOLIATION: Skin treatment where the upper layer of dead skin cells is sloughed off. Among the techniques: loofah (sponge) rub and salt scrub or glow, done with coarse sea salt.

FANGO: Mud, typically with high-mineral content. It's often combined with oil or water and applied over the body to detoxify, soothe muscles, open pores, and stimulate circulation.

GOMMAGE: Cleansing, rehydrating treatment using creams, which are applied in long massage-type movements.

HERBAL WRAP: Strips of cloth soaked in a heated herbal solution are wrapped around the body, followed by a period of rest, to eliminate toxins and impurities.

HYDROTHERAPY: Water therapy in the forms of underwater jet massage, showers, jet sprays or mineral baths.

LYMPH DRAINAGE:Therapeutic massage using a gentle pumping technique to drain away pockets of water retention and trapped toxins.

REFLEXOLOGY: Ancient Chinese technique using pressure-point massage to the feet, hands and ears to restore energy flow to the body.

SHIATSU: Japanese acupressure massage technique in which pressure is applied to specific points on the body to stimulate and unblock meridians (pathways in the body through which life energy flows).

SPORTS MASSAGE: Deep tissue massage, directed specifically at muscles used in athletic activity.

SWEDISH MASSAGE: Classical European massage technique of gentle manipulation of the muscles with the use of massage oils. Used to improve circulation, ease muscle aches and tension, improve flexibility and foster relaxation.

THALASSOTHERAPY: Therapeutic sea-based treatments, including algae wraps and seawater hydrotherapy. * L.G.

Who needs a spa?

Not every group is a candidate for an all-encompassing, industrial-strength program like LJH's Canyon Ranch meeting. The degree to which wellness fits into a program depends a lot on attendees' comfort level.

Martin Turner, a U.K.-based planner who specializes in health and wellness meetings, suggests that planners determine the meeting's wellness objectives. "Do you want to hold a regular meeting, with the wellness concept introduced through a couple of health breaks, a program with a few spa treatments tacked on as a reward for attendees, or a comprehensive program where they'll learn how wellness and stress management fit into the overall picture [of their lives]?"

The first type -- the real introductory program -- can be staged at just about any venue simply by adding a light exercise break and wellness speakers to the agenda. (If exercise is involved, be sure to inform attendees to bring proper attire.)

For example, Turner hired Marcus Irwin, an international fitness personality, to speak at a three-day conference held at Darling Harbor, a large convention/leisure complex in Sydney, Australia. During the morning and afternoon breaks, Irwin discussed a basic fitness or health topic for 15 minutes; for the next 15 minutes he engaged attendees in some light physical activity, such as stretching, mild aerobics and relaxation techniques.

"The group thought it was brilliant," says Turner. "But that had a lot to do with Irwin's enthusiasm and personality, so choose speakers wisely."

Among places to find such presenters are speaker bureaus that specialize in sports/fitness personalities, recommendations from fitness centers and, the spa director of the property.

First-timers' jitters

If the group is filled with first-timers who are spa-shy, Spa-Finders' Stephanie Matolyak recommends selecting a spa resort -- a resort with spa facilities -- where attendees have the opportunity to sample one or two spa treatments during the course of the meeting. Properties such as the Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa on Maui and PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., fit into this category.

A destination spa -- such as the Canyon Ranch (which also has a property in Lennox, Mass.) or Miraval, Life in Balance, in Tucson, Ariz. -- is more geared for the soup-to-nuts wellness meeting, offering such extras as advanced fitness classes and health counseling.

For meetings where wellness is incorporated but not the major focus, a common challenge for planners is getting spa novices to loosen up about the whole experience. "A lot of attendees -- especially men -- have never had a facial, let alone stepped in a spa. They think the whole concept is 'sissy,'" says Martin Turner.

Planners can ease the way for first-timers by making sure the spa staff and therapists understand your people don't know an herbal wrap from a sandwich wrap. Many spa properties also have introductory brochures that explain the basics of the spa experience, such as suggested dress codes and an explanation of procedures and treatments that can be sent to attendees prior to the meeting or handed out during registration or check-in.

Once they get that initial treatment, most first-timers are hooked. A client of Sandy Cutrone, president of European Connection, a planning firm based in Roslyn Heights, N.Y., initially thought the idea of spa treatments at a meeting was ridiculous. But now, five years later, this mostly male pharmaceutical group "considers massages a highlight of the meetings; they only want to meet at properties with spas."

Good vibes and other criteria How can you tell if a spa has the perfect karma for your group? Following are some tips from industry experts.

MEET THE SPA DIRECTOR. "The spa director is the equivalent of a convention services manager at the facility," says Wayne Smith, executive director of the International Spa and Fitness Association (known as ISPA), based in Alexandria, Va. "He should show you around and explain it all to you, as if you were a first-time spa visitor."

TRUST FIRST IMPRESSIONS. "I can pretty much size up the condition of the spa from the reception area," says U.K.-based health meeting consultant Martin Turner. "If the area is well-kept and clean and the receptionist is friendly, it usually bodes well for the rest of the facility." Among the other external features to determine: Are the changing facilities and showers clean? Are the treatment rooms clean? What's the condition of the steam room, sauna, exercise facilities and machines?

COUNT TREATMENT ROOMS. Some facilities say they can accommodate a certain number of treatments per hour; be sure they have the physical room to support the claim. "It's also a good idea to check with the director on the general availability of treatments -- what's the level of leisure guest use, and does the spa offer local memberships (many spas, particularly in urban areas, have local clients)," says ISPA's Smith.

BE A GUINEA PIG. "The best way for you to determine the professionalism of staff is to try at least one treatment yourself," says Turner. Sure it's a tough job, but someone's got to do it. (Adds Roslyn Heights, N.Y.-based independent planner Sandy Cutrone, "It also doesn't hurt to take the decision-maker along to sample the goods.") At the same time, you'll be able to tell if the rooms are soundproof. There's nothing quite like a loud "ouch" from the person being pummeled by the masseuse in the next room to snap you out of your aromatherapy-induced trance.

CONSIDER THE FLESH FACTOR. Some spas are more conservative than others. For instance, are there separate steam rooms and saunas for men and women? What's the dress code? Says Turner, "A lot of people don't feel comfortable walking around in a towel, particularly if they're with co-workers." If that's the case, he advises, find a place that's more in tune with your attendees' attitudes. The same goes for the treatments: Most places "drape" the portion of the body that's not being worked on, so guests are not totally exposed. But some places don't think twice about working on buck-naked bods. Make sure the place you pick is in tune with your attendees' levels of modesty.

CHECK FOR CERTIFICATION. Most spas and spa resorts are members of ISPA, which has set standards and practices to which its members must adhere. "We follow up if a complaint is registered against a place," says Smith. Likewise, the American Massage Therapy Association is the largest organization that provides certification to professionals in the United States. ISPA's Smith adds, "Some states, like Florida and California, are really tough and require that massage therapists pass state certification requirements in order to practice, while some others don't require certification at all." * L.G.

Add "ahhh" time

If you do choose a venue with a spa, be sure to factor in enough time for attendees to enjoy the added benefits. While group activities are easily arranged around meeting times, individual treatments and sessions are harder to schedule.

Schedule meeting agenda items first. Once you know the off-times, ask the spa director to block these periods of time for your group (scheduling will also depend on the number of treatment rooms available). Don't know how many will want shiatsu? Do a little preliminary work.

"We recommend that for groups of 100 or more the attendees select treatments before the meeting begins," says Gordon Tareta, director of the Solace Spa at Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta, Canada. "This way, if we know that most people want facials, we can hire extra therapists to accommodate the group."

Another option that works well with small groups is to arrange all spa treatments on day one of the program, as Martin Turner did for one small group of Australian VIPs. "After a long flight, the massage, facial, pedicure and Jacuzzi was just the medicine to set the 'L.A.' tone and ensure that the guests were relaxed and refreshed before the meeting," he says.

Bargaining tip When booking a meeting at a spa resort, try to use a property that owns and manages the spa as well," recommends Martin Turner, a U.K.-based planner who specializes in wellness meetings. "You'll have much more leverage in your price negotiations.

"If the price listed is $90 per hour for a massage," he says, "the facility, which is also managing the spa, is probably paying the therapists $20 or $30 per hour. The spa may forfeit some of their profit if they know you'll be spending x amount on rooms, food and beverage, etc." * L.G.

Beyond massage

For the total well-being meeting, attendees don't just listen to speakers and surrender themselves to masseuses and other spa treatment therapists. Today, says Spa-Finders' Matolyak, attendees are getting into activities like group lessons in yoga or tai chi (a Chinese martial art form that combines mental concentration, slow breathing and graceful dancelike movements).

Many spas now offer spiritual counseling or activities in addition to traditional programs. But Turner suggests reserving the "higher plane" stuff for attendees to choose programs based on individual comfort. Group activities, he suggests, should be on a more introductory level to spiritual and New Age concepts.

Mandating such activities, he says, would be "too much like forcing religion on someone."

Other New Age offerings are treatments based on Ayurveda (see "Translating Spa Speak" on page 78) and crystal therapy.

Moderation, not starvation

Muscles and mind-set aren't the only areas in which a meeting can influence attendees' well-being. Food and beverage should definitely tie in to the healthy theme, but the key, experts say, is to not go overboard.

"Well-being means being balanced; health is not a religion, it's a way of life," notes Turner. "Allow for the occasional indulgence. Offer a choice -- for meals, receptions and breaks -- of both healthful and sinful food."

That's if you have a choice. Some destination spas are strict in their offerings and allow no exceptions to their policy, so pore over menus before selecting a venue. Sandy Cutrone once nixed a beautiful spa in Italy she was inspecting for a client because the only food they served tasted like "green toothpaste." But don't equate spa cuisine with rabbit food. Usually, it's every bit as palate-pleasing as traditional, calorie-laden fare.

Whether to serve alcohol is another matter. At Canyon Ranch, for instance, alcohol isn't offered in the dining room or guest areas. But one night, LJH was able to hold a private cocktail reception on the property (the group had to provide its own liquor).

Most resort spas have virtually no ban on booze; in those cases, it's up to the planner to determine whether alcohol is to be part of the wellness meeting. Martin Turner recommends following normal meeting/alcohol guidelines: Keep it "dry" during the day, serving alcoholic beverages only during evening functions and meals.

Caffeine also is often considered a health no-no. "If you're giving attendees choices for breakfast and lunch, you can bet some will indulge in the fatty foods," Turner says. "They're going to need plenty of caffeine during the breaks to make it through the meeting sessions, so be realistic and offer coffee and tea, along with the juices and herbal teas." *

Spa guides Following are several organizations to help you plan a spa and/or wellness meeting.

Provides names and information about its 834 member spas.
Alexandria, Va.
(888) 651-ISPA
Fax: (703) 838-2936

Matches groups with spa facilities that meet their needs and meeting budgets, at no fee.
New York, N.Y.
(800) 255-7727
Fax: (212) 924-7240

Offers references of qualified therapists for those who want to set up massage treatments at facilities other than spas.
(847) 864-0123
Fax: (847) 864-1178 * L.G.

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